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 Whale Rider 
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Post Whale Rider

The film "Whale Rider" (2002) by Niki Caro, based on the novel of the
same name by Witi Ihimaera, centers around the survival of traditional
culture and the relation to the divine. Paikea, the girl hero, whose
name means Whale Rider, rides astride the leader whale and thus saves
the whole flock of whales from certain death as they are stranded on
the beach. The name Paikea is after a mythical cultural hero who came
riding on a whale to New Zealand. Whale Rider is about revivification of
symbols in culture, and how it relates to the growth of the individual.

The girl's father has abandoned Maori culture and moved to Germany to
pursue a career as an artist, but his daughter has the ambition to
assume leadership. She has secretly been learning the Maori traditions
and the sacred stick fight, reserved for males.

The greek word for whale is 'phalle', which is at least
onomatopoetically related to 'phallos'. The whale also has the
capacity to spurt out through the blowhole in a way that looks like a
fountain. It has an ejaculative significance. Hence, in the film, the
girl rides astride a humongous phallus, a generative symbol which
relates to fruitfulness, similar to what occurs in the fertility rites
in religious history, sometimes expressed as sacred dramas with sexual
content. Taken as a symbol, the sexual union with the great phallus
portrays a different cultural position, rather than killing the whale
to capture its valuable oil.

The original Maori cultural hero Paikea, riding on the 'phalle',
resembles the ityphallic gods of ancient times, e.g. the Egyptian
fertility god Min, or the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl whose member was so
big that he had to carry it around in a sack. The girl Paikea is born
as the only child in the line of the tribe's chiefly line. She is
destined to recover the divine phallus, when it lies stranded on the
beach as the castrated member of a god. Her redemptive task is to
carry the role of the divinity herself, thereby restituting the
fertility of the land, securing the survival of culture.

When consciousness has become petrified a vital force from the
unconscious is the only possibility to replenish life. That's why the
whales return, and that's why the cultural hero, the Whale Rider,
returns. The archetypal hero is the only one capable of taming the
enormous force of the unconscious and leading consciousness into
harmony with the unconscious again.

So the Whale Rider is a story about the split between God and man,
between culture and the unconscious, and how a decaying culture, and
the rift in man's soul, can be made whole again. Whereas traditional
Maori culture followed the rituals in an impersonal way, merely
repeating the rituals generation after generation, until they lost
their potency, the girl Paikea herself lives the experience of death
and resurrection, she herself becomes the god that arrived from the
sea. So she provides an example for the individual. With the evolution
of culture, the religious experience becomes more and more personal.

Jesus introduced this idea already 2,000 years ago. No longer is it
enough to follow the rituals collectively, but it's now up the
individual himself/herself to relate to the mystery of the divine.
Paikea is a hero proper in that she makes up a role model for the
individual. Earlier, the hero was something much more remote, a
cultural hero-god, Paikea, who arrived from the sea at the beginning
of time. But now she is here and now, among people in time. Likewise,
the Christ manifested among people as a regular man, and made it clear
that you have to relate personally to the divine, for the "kingdom is
inside you". That's why he said that "You are gods" (John 10:34-36).

The stranded whale flock symbolizes the crisis of the culture, which
can no longer be invigorated by male leadership. None of the boys
succeed in recovering the whale tooth which has been thrown into the
ocean - a mission that would prove one of them worthy of becoming
leader. Koro, the girl's grandfather, represents the dying father
figure who must soon be replaced by a vital force. He sticks to old
traditions but has no vitality left. He attempts to lead the village
in dragging the stranded whales back to the sea, but fails. He
personifies the old dying collective consciousness. It is a typical
theme in fairytales that the old father figure resists the future
leader, but later comes to accept her or him. The future king or queen
is often the least likely candidate, e.g. the dirty boy working in the
stables, or the poor girl working in the kitchen.

The girl Paikea recovers the sacred whale tooth and leads the whales
back to the sea. In riding the whale she recapitulates the deed of the
original cultural hero who came riding on a whale to New Zealand.
Riding the whale symbolizes harmony with God and the unconscious, for
the whale is a symbol of God, as in Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Only
by reestablishing this harmony can culture be revitalized.

The whale tooth is a phallic symbol in its capacity of fecundity, but
it seems its power must be restored in the unconscious. This is why
it's thrown back into the sea. However, death heralds new life. The
ritual recovery of the whale tooth from the sea, a feat which every
leader must perform, symbolizes how the vital cultural force is again
obtained from the unconscious. Losing teeth means losing power in some
sense, and the lost whale tooth is symbolic of death. The losing of a
tooth is clearly a potent death symbol. But the whale tooth that is
lost in the sea is ritually recovered. This is symbolic of

The old symbols are losing their potency, and traditional culture
is being abandoned. The ordinary leader candidates can no longer
perform this task. Only an unexpected candidate can do it. The girl
personifies an archetypal force of the unconscious, capable of
revitalizing a decaying culture. The incapable boys represent an
attempt at replenishment of collective consciousness, but they are
only capable of continuing in the same old rut. This is a typical
theme in fairytales, when the hero has incapable brothers who fail in
their mission. They represent only copies of the old and obsolete
fatherly principle.

When Paikea goes under the water, riding the whale, she thinks that
she is "not afraid to die". Symbolically, Paikea dies in the sea and
resurrects, this is a returning motif of the archetypal hero, and is
the motif underlying baptism. The symbol points at the 'principium
individuationis', the freeing of individuality. Abandoning all worldly
attachment must needs lead to the emancipation of the personality.
This is according to the mystics, who are the foremost proponents of
the 'mors voluntaria'. The most obvious example is the emancipation of
the ego from its infantile bond to the parents, especially the mother.
But this process does not end here. So the hero's journey signifies
the freeing of individual personality by means of voluntary death,
when all worldly attachment is abandoned. But after the transformation
the hero returns, like the Buddha.

It is clear that Paikea introduces a new way of relating to the world,
namely the way of true individuality, by which the individual
undergoes death and rebirth. If the path of the individual is not
followed, Maori culture cannot survive, because consciousness has now
evolved beyond the naive way of relating to symbols and rituals,
represented by grandfather Koro. Culture threatens to go in the
direction of Paikea's father. Their artistic pieces would be exhibited
as picturesque examples of a forlorn culture.

A similar image is present in the story of Jonah who is swallowed by a
whale. But in being carried by the whale he is actually saved from
drowning. It is along these lines that we must analyse the story of
the "Whale Rider". Freud had realized the import of the death theme,
but no modern Freudian wants to recognize his notion of Thanatos.
Therefore one can argue that modern Freudians try to 'avoid the real
unconscious' by not accepting the immense and painful role of the
individual's journey by which he breaks loose from collective identity
and therefore becomes capable of rejuvenating culture himself. He is
no longer dependent on the powers that be, and his culture can evade
the destiny of becoming a museum piece, and the people drowned in grey
consumerism mass-culture.

Paikea represents the birth of the self-willed individual. Thus, the
story compensates the tendency of collective identification in this
fairly primitive ethnic group, a disposition which makes them unable
to cope with modern times. Comparatively, the Americans are very
fixated on the hero myth, judging from the Hollywood productions and
the worship of the young self-made individual. I believe this is
because there is a strong tendency of regression in modern
mass-culture. There is certainly a primitive tendency in American
culture, and in their variegated ethnicity, which, due to the danger
of regression, poses a threat to individual accomplishment. This is
being compensated in hero worship.

Today, it seems, there exist two camps: (1) the Father Complex camp,
which consists of traditional Freudians, Tea Partyers, Conservative
Judaists, etc., and then there is (2) the Mother Complex camp, which
contains the multiculturalists, leftists, French philosophers,
Gutmenschen, etc.

But people must go beyond those opposites and learn to relate more
individually to reality, which is what the Whale Rider is really
about. We learn what is true from our own heart, not merely from The
Book (the Father complex camp) or from political correctness and
social adjustment (the Mother Complex camp).

As we all know, women are more prone to belong to the latter group,
and men to the former. Women are fixated on social adjustment whereas
men can become quite theoretical. A man who has read about Marxist
analysis, or whatnot, will always analyse all of reality from this
narrow perspective, which is very silly, really.

In our civilization the ideal of individuation is Jesus who said that
"I and the Father are one". This means that he was his own father. The
outer father, in whatever sense, is therefore outmoded, as is bookish
literalism. The individual can take fully charge of his own life when
he realizes that the father is not separate from him. Then he is also
capable of altering psychological theory, because theory will never be
static. Then he is no longer a slave to any tenets or dogmas, whether
Marxist, Islamic or Christian, because the Kingdom is within.

Paikea becomes the ityphallic god herself. Normally, when human heroes
aspire to divinity, they are cast down from heaven and drown in the
sea, like Bellerophon or Icarus. But Paikea survives because this is
her true destiny. She is later washed ashore and can return to human
life. In the heroic tale, and in the whale riding experience, the
connection between humanity and the divine sphere is restored.

The feminine hero seems to affect people, as in the Millennium books
and the upcoming film "The girl with the dragon tattoo". This is
coupled with the backward condition of women, and how some of them
today struggle to break free of collective identity to acquire a true

(c) Mats Winther, Nov 2010

Wed Nov 24, 2010 7:35 pm
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